Three Democrats are vying to fill an open seat for El Paso County Court at Law No. 3, whose presiding judge is not seeking reelection after 27 years on the bench. There are no Republican contenders in the March 1 primary.

The candidates are Melissa Baeza, Monica “Lupita” Perez and Jorge Rivas. All three are native El Pasoans.

County Court at Law No. 3 is one of El Paso’s seven county courts at law and is among two that handle only civil cases, such as lawsuits over employment, evictions, contracts and debt.

Whoever replaces departing Judge Javier Alvarez will encounter a court system in many ways transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtrooms shut their doors and, in some instances, temporarily suspended hearings in the name of health safety — measures that led to case backlogs across the country. In 2020, the number of active pending cases in Texas’ county courts at law had climbed by 8%, according to the Texas Judiciary’s annual statistical report.

While many courts have reopened or transitioned to virtual hearings, backlogs persist. The winner of this race will take on the difficult administrative balancing act of reducing those backlogs without sacrificing fairness in the judicial process. The incoming judge will also wrestle with questions of whether and when to hold proceedings virtually.

All three candidates say they are the best equipped to tackle these challenges.

Early voting for the March 1 primaries lasts from Feb. 14 – Feb. 25.

Melissa Baeza

So far it is Baeza, 38, who has garnered the most political contributions of the three contenders, having amassed a total of $70,950 in political contributions as of the Jan. 31 filing deadline — outstripping Rivas’ and Perez’ combined contributions by more than $23,000.

Melissa Baeza

Baeza also led the El Paso Bar Association’s judicial candidate poll, receiving 50.38% of the 133 votes, compared to Perez’ 25.56% and Rivas’ 24.06%.

Baeza took an indirect path to law, majoring in biology and engaging in cancer research as an undergraduate, turning briefly to substitute teaching and finally to law school, where an externship shadowing El Paso judges sparked her interest in the courtroom.

Being a judge “is much different than advocating as an attorney, where you advocate for one side and you get paid by that side,” she said. “As a judge, you represent the community, the people.”

After 12 years practicing law, she cited her civil litigation experience representing both plaintiffs and defendants in cases involving breaches of contract, personal injury, workers compensation and medical practice, among others, as preparation for the job.

She says this varied legal experience and her work experience sets her apart from her opponents: “It has to come down to my work ethic and my experience.”

Monica “Lupita” Perez

Perez, the youngest of the three candidates at 33, points to her civil trial experience as preparation for the role, having seen 20 civil trials to verdict, which in part led to her invitation-only admission to the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Monica “Lupita” Perez

“I’m actually the youngest member to have been able to attain these qualifications and become part of the El Paso Chapter,” she said.

Over the years she has served as President of the Mexican American Bar Association, the Texas Young Lawyers Association and the El Paso arm of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a mentorship program for underserved youth. In June, she said, she’ll be sworn in as President of the El Paso Bar Association.

Perez said she was motivated to run for office after Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election. She joined the race for County Court at Law No. 3, she said, in part because she believes El Paso needs a good judge to replace Alvarez.

She is also running as an inspiration for her two daughters. “You know, they see mom and they see that yes, you can run for office; yes, you can be a judge,” she said.

Jorge Rivas

Jorge Rivas, 54, is a private attorney, military veteran, and for 16 years has served as an associate municipal judge for the City of El Paso, a position that involves substituting for full-time city judges.

Jorge Rivas

“I have nearly more experience than both of the two candidates combined,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’m more qualified than the other two candidates.”

Rivas has been licensed to practice law in Texas since 1998. Baeza and Perez have practiced law since 2009 and 2012, respectively, and neither has served as a judge.

“COVID has just slowed things down,” Rivas said. “We need someone that has some judicial experience, that can get these cases moving from day one.”

He became interested in holding the bench because he wanted to move beyond “always fighting for one side,” he said. Rivas began his legal career as a prosecutor, then joined law firms that represented businesses and insurance companies. Now he owns his own law practice, where he has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in personal injury and employment discrimination cases, among other issues.

“There came a point in my life where I started realizing, you know, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can almost tell in advance what’s going to happen,” Rivas said. “And I think that I can provide more value to the public at this point by applying everything I’ve learned.”

Victoria Rossi is a women and gender issues reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal...